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Critic's notebook: Vanity exhibitions are usually incoherent

October 9, 2010 | 10:00 am

Samson and the Philistine © The Huntington I don't recall ever having seen a private collection show at an art museum that made a lick of sense. One big problem: Usually the only thing that unites the very disparate, even ad hoc array of paintings, sculptures, drawings and other works of art is that the same person owns them all.

That, and the common fact that the museum really wants them.

Museum professionals rarely say so outright, but institutional envy is what is typically on display. Like Adam and Eve grasping for some leaves, all kinds of rationales are invented as flimsy cover for what often amounts to plain old-fashioned covetousness.

Despite the incoherence, some museums keep trying private collection shows anyhow. Three have opened at major American museums in the last few weeks.

On Sunday I'll have a story on why these undertakings -- more tellingly called vanity exhibitions -- are as cheesy an idea now as they've ever been.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: "Samson and the Philistine," perhaps by Baccio Bandinelli (1488-1560); credit: Peter Marino Collection, © The Huntington Library